Unable to Leap Tall Buildings and Much Smaller Objects: Why Americans Don’t Embrace The Adventures of Tintin
by Nate Garrelts
For over 80 years, children and adults worldwide have enjoyed the adventures of the young Belgian reporter Tintin and his terrier Snowy. The series has been translated into sixty languages and sold more than 200 million copies worldwide. Even today, about 4 million Tintin books are sold each year. Unfortunately, Tintin’s following in the United States has been disappointing. In the introduction to Jean-Marie Apostolides 2009 book The Metamorphoses of Tintin: or Tintin for Adults, he includes an apology directly to American readers that begins “First, this book initially was addressed to those readers perfectly familiar with the Tintin albums. Thus, I did not always clearly explain the circumstances of one or another particular adventure, for I supposed they were already known to my readers”. In fact, the new 3D Tintin film directed by Steven Speilberg and Peter Jackson will release in Europe eight weeks before the United States, a first for a Spielberg film. Co-producer Kathleen Kennedy recently explained “That property is known so well in Europe and virtually not at all here”. So, as Tintin fans around the world wait in giddy anticipation of the 2011 release, many Americans find themselves asking the question: Who is Tintin?
Created by Georges Rémi who took the penname Herge, Tintin was first published on January 10, 1929 in a children’s supplement to the Belgian newspaper Le Vingtieme Siecle titled Le Petit Vingtième, which circulated about 12,000 copies daily. The strips were then collected each year to form an album. The stories feature Tintin as a Vingtieme reporter as he travels the world collecting photos and stories, in places like the Soviet Union, the Congo, and America. While investigating incidents such as a sunken ship or missing person, Tintin is often attacked, captured, and even framed. But through his Boy Scout like knowledge of the world and his faith, he escapes to reveal the truth in a very sophisticated Scooby-Doo fashion. In later stories, Tintin is joined by a cast of friends, such as the gruff Captain Haddock and hearing challenged Professor Calculus, who add comic relief and sometimes help move the plot forward. Tintin’s appeal to European and other audiences is partially grounded in the way the stories capture changing ideologies in Europe throughout the 20th century especially regarding the international and colonial settings of Tintin’s adventures. The Nazi occupation of Belgium and France, which resulted in the ban on American comics no doubt also contributed to his success/advantage. According to Apostlides “it is no exaggeration to claim that Tintin was part of the education of most of the young Francophone boys and girls growing up after the Second World War. With Tintin, they discovered the world; with Tintin, they developed the taste for adventure”.
It’s not that we have been deprived of Tintin here in the United States, on the contrary he has been made available to the American public several times and in several formats. According to Tintin scholar Chris Owens, Tintin made his first official debut in America in four volumes published in 1959 by Golden Publishing; these include: King Ottokar’s Scepter, The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure. Unfortunately, only 10,000 copies of each were sold in a market that at the time could be characterized as “distrust[ing] of anything with the look of a comic book”. This attempt was followed by the serialization of some Tintin adventures from 1966 to the early 70’s in Children’s Digest, which had a monthly circulation of 700,000 copies. The 1970s also saw the release of a syndicated Belgian Tintin cartoon series in the US, and Atlantic-Little Brown began publishing the British editions of Tintin when Golden’s rights expired. And thus the situation remained until a brief resurgence in the early 90’s on HBO of 39 episodes of The Adventures of Tintin.
Given the similarities between Tintin and the heroes of American comics, one would think that he would resonate in some way with American audiences. After all, he has a dog like Orphan Annie and shares her “reliance on providence, faith, hope and charity” . He acts as a procedural detective at times similar to Dick Tracy and Batman, even wielding a gun when the situation warrants. His best friend, Captain Haddock, looks and acts like Bluto from Popeye. He visits outer space like Flash Gordon. And perhaps most of all, like Superman, his cover is being a reporter. Although everything is there for use to love, there is something off-putting to American audiences, and it is this:
In his book The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, Tzvetan Todorov uses the term fantastic to refer to a literary genre that hinges on the reader and sometimes character’s determination of what can be “explained by the laws of this same familiar world” and what cannot. In the course of a fantastic narrative, the plot often works toward the resolution of the fantastic to either explain the events according to “the laws of reason,” which he refers to as the uncanny, or to accept that the events cannot be explained, which he refers to as the marvelous. Todorov thus divides fantastic literature into the “uncanny: fantastic-uncanny: fantastic- marvelous: marvelous”. Using the framework proposed by Todorov against a backdrop of Golden Age American comics, it appears that American audiences have been conditioned for decades to expect what Todorov might refer to as the fantastic-marvelous, whereas Tintin’s adventures almost always present the fantastic-uncanny. This is the significant difference.
The American market for comic strips and comic books was especially innovative and competitive during the years of Tintin’s birth and subsequent success. Among the first generation of American comics appearing in newspapers, often referred to as Platinum era comics, were titles such as the Yellow Kid (1895), Katzenjammer Kids (1898), Mutt and Jeff (1907), and Krazy Katt (1913). These were later followed by tittles such as Little Orphan Annie (1924), Mickey Mouse (1928), Buck Rogers (1929), Tarzan (1929), Dick Tracy (1931), and Flash Gordon (1933). The comic book itself evolved slowly throughout the twenties and thirties, first as special odd shaped newspaper promotional reprints and then in a recognizable book size state with M.C. Gaines Funnies on Parade (1933). Will Eisner’s The Sprit (1940) actually “bridged the gap” because it was a coverless 16 (and later 8 page) book that “circulated with Sunday funnies in newspapers”.
The next period in the evolution of American comics, the Golden Age, is marked by the settling of the comic book format but also by the development of the superhero. It was during this time period that Superman (1938), Batman (1939), and the most popular of all Captain Marvel (1939), who suffered a fate worse than Tintin at the hands of corporate America, were created. These new stars of comics met several needs. First, as Jules Fieffer writes in The Great Comic Book Heroes, in the “pre-super days” the “heroes were not very interesting” when compared to the villains who were “bigger, stronger, smarter (as who wasn’t?), and, even worse, were notorious scene stealers”. Anyone familiar with the villains in Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy such as Flattop, The Brow, Flyface, Spots, and Pruneface can identify. In fact, according to Fiefer, it wasn’t even believable that the heros could effectively combat such villains. So he says, “when Superman at last appeared, he brought with him the deep satisfaction of all underground truths: our reaction was less “How original!” than “But, of course!”. But even more than this, the world had transformed rapidly since the beginning of the 20th century. As Umberto Eco writes in his essay the “Myth of Superman,” in modern industrial societies where humanity is “confronted with the strength of machines which determine mans very movements” the “hero must embody to an unthinkable degree the power demands that the average citizen nurtures but cannot satisfy”. Superhero’s like Superman allowed us to do just that.
Yet, the creation of super-beings presented a host of different problems for writers and audiences. For example, because Superman was so powerful writers were obliged then to present him with worthy challenges, as Fieffer continues: “for once you’ve made a man super you’ve plotted him out of believable conflicts; that even super-villians, super-mad scientists and, yes super-orientals were dull and lifeless next to the overwhelming image of that which Clark Kent became when he took off his clothes”. Umberto Eco similarly points out, Superman “by definition” is “in the worrisome narrative situation of being a hero without an adversary and therefore without the possibility of any development.” The end result, Eco says, is that readers are “struck by the strangeness of the obstacles—diabolically conceived inventions, curiously equipped apparitions from outer space, machines that can transmit one through time, teratological results of new experiments…”. Yet, despite all of his superpowers Superman accomplishes relatively little for humanity in the end. As Eco later points out “the only visible form that evil assumes [for Superman] is an attempt on private property” and even worse, though he makes an occasional trip to other planets or periods in time, “Superman carries on his activity on the level of the small community where he lives (Smallville as a youth, Metropolis as an adult)”. Granted this has changed for Superman and other heroes in recent decades, but the point is still true. In reality, Lex Luthor is probably more of a humanitarian.
As the ante was upped, so was Superman. In his beginnings Superman was not the all-powerful flying, heat vision, x-ray vision, time traveling super being we know today. Instead, in Action Comics number one, readers were introduced to a being who could only leap 80 feet at a time, run, fast and resist damage—he was not indestructible. But as White points out by the late fifties “Superman himself was hardly recognizable. He was, we were told, totally invulnerable to anything except Kryptonite and—get this!—magic.”. Of course, he could also fly, time travel, and do a host of other really cool things. Thusly, the American audience and Superman were mutually caught up in a spiral to the top of the marvelous. Of course, not every hero was super-human, but it was the case that from Superman on many were and those who weren’t were endowed with some other magical power either by gift or scientific accident. The Green Lantern had a power ring, The Flash had ingested some hard water in a lab that made him super fast, and of course Billy Batson had the magic word Shazaam that turned him into the Big Red Cheese, Captain Marvel. However, as Lupoff and Thompson point out, “For every Superman there has been a Batman, for every Human Torch a Captain America, and for every Bulletman a Mister Scarlet”. And these characters who are just as marvelous, usually through superior intellect and technology also became more marvelous by the year. In the late 1940s Dick Tracy got a wrist radio and by the 1960s he was flying a space car. And who knows what Batman is driving or flying these days.
On the contrary, unlike our superheroes who come from other planets, great wealth, or tragic experiences that shape them, Tintin has no such mythic origins. In fact, he is, as Tom McCarthy writes in Tintin and the Secret of Literature, “the degree zero of personage. He has no past, no sexual identity, no complexities”. Aside from what we learn throughout the stories as they unfold, we know nothing of him except that he is reporter, albeit one who never does much official work—Clark Kent is even seen around the Daily Planet. Nor does Tintin have any powers, although he is an Ubermensch of sorts. He is eternally youthful, physically fit, kind to animals and foreign dictators, doesn’t drink or smoke, and has a profound understanding for the physical world. Like McGuyver he “can build an automobile from scraps of iron without using a single tool” or predict to the minute when a solar eclipse will occur. Indeed, though he his not super, he is better than his readers, the social tableau represented in the stories, and especially his supporting cast who drink to excess or habitually miss the obvious. He is akin to Daddy Warbucks, who Arthur Asa Berger labels a “transcendent hero” rising “high above the ordinary man” to “reveal the pettiness and triviality of the common man”.
And what of the situations in which Tintin finds himself? He is an explorer and his travels take him all over the world to real places were, as McCarthy argues, he is presented with enigmas ranging “from the social enigma of the Soviet Union to the scientific enigma of the shooting star to the supernatural enigma of the Sun God’s curse. Tintin is caught up in these and ends up solving them.” And in these situations is where Tintin does what Golden Age American superheroes could rarely do: He takes on problems with a broad social impact and simultaneously reveals the intricate and real logic of how he solved the problem. According to McCarthy, “Tintin has a skeptical mind, prying being the surfaces of things to find that what seems to be a fully operating factory is merely a stage set, that what appears to be a haunted house is actually rigged with hidden gramophone and speaker”. Tintin need only look in the trash to find the secret to ending international drug smuggling.
Even the artwork in Tintin acts to de-emphasize the wonder of comics, as Herge was a pioneer of what is now referred to as ligne claire style. Whereas, in many comics the line width varies to “give a feeling of depth and perspective - with closer elements being made up of thick, heavy lines while those further away are more thinly drawn - or to emphasize more important elements,” in the ligne claire style all lines are “drawn with equal weight and thickness”. This is combined with an absence of other shading and effects that we might find in the work of Will Eisner’s The Shadow. Moreover, Herge worked diligently to accurately represent the settings of his stories, keeping extensive files. When he drew the inside of a spaceship, it was really the inside of a spaceship. Thus, explosions that pop off the page and “partially clothed, amazingly proportioned females” of the kind found in Fiction House comics like Sheena, did not exist in the world of Tintin.
While popular Golden Age American comics often center on fantastic beings and feats in a caricaturized world where scientific fact is reinvented to reveal the marvelous, a direct result of the historical development of the superhero comic book form in America, the stories of Tintin repeatedly confront and debunk the fantastic to reveal the uncanny in a word mirroring our own. And while it seems I am arguing that because Tintin is not a superhero we will never embrace him, it is more than that. Tintin is Indiana Jones who shows us that the beating heart in his hand is fake, the arc of the covenant really has a lightbulb inside, the holy grail is just a cup, and aliens are not real, and this where he may be unsuccessfully confronting American culture. So, around Christmas 2010, Tintin will make another film debut in America, which I doubt Americans will embrace—at least not for long. After all, a lost colony from Kypton just landed on earth to form New Krypton and Bernard Chang, the new Action Comics artist, has a sort of radical drawing style.
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Nathan Garrelts is an Associate Professor of Languages and Literature at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. His scholarship focuses mostly on narrative media, and he has edited two collections of essays on digital games: Digital Gameplay (2005) and The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto (2006).